Naruto and Iruka are sitting together at the table in the hokage’s residence, quietly sipping tea while Boruto naps in Iruka’s lap, when Naruto clears his throat.
“Hey, Iruka-sensei,” he says, voice uncertain.
Curious, Iruka looks up from Boruto’s sleeping face into Naruto’s pinched one. He's known since Naruto dropped by unannounced that something was going on, but even with the world orienting itself toward peace, the corridors of Naruto’s mind are as unfathomable as they were when he was only Uzumaki Naruto: outsider, monster, failure.
After all, Naruto will never be predictable, except by being unpredictable.
“Is everything okay?” Iruka asks.
It obviously isn't, but every conversation needs to start somewhere.
Naruto nods quickly. “Yeah! Yeah, everything’s okay!”
“Then why are you looking at me like that?”
“That's not- I just have a question that's kind of stupid, I guess.” Naruto laughs, the sound obviously forced, and glances away, rubbing at the back of his head awkwardly. “You don't have to answer it or anything if you don't want to.”
A decade has passed since Naruto was Iruka’s responsibility. Their roles are reversed now. Iruka can't defend Naruto against any enemies Naruto himself can't fend off; as Kakashi promised, Naruto truly surpassed him.
He surpassed them all.
Stroking Boruto’s arm, Iruka considers the baby's father as Naruto is now.
Compared to the wild child Iruka taught, the man Naruto has become is much closer to respectable. He's still loud, but he's gotten quieter now that he's no longer so desperate for attention all he can do is yell. He's seen things he shouldn't have and been wounded in ways Iruka can't fathom; the experiences Iruka won't ask him to relive shroud him sometimes, putting the world at a distance.
Some of that shroud eases when Naruto comes here, where the only people around are Iruka and Kakashi. He laughs more easily, and the mischief-making the rest of the village thinks he outgrew returns.
All of Iruka’s students are precious to him, but Naruto will always be the one Iruka loves most. Even if Naruto had never become a hero like he said he would, that would have been true.
Seeing him so unhappy hurts.
“I won't know if I want to answer if you don't ask me,” Iruka points out.
Naruto’s eyes drift away.
Without meaning to, Iruka squeezes Boruto a little harder.
Disturbed by the pressure, Boruto shifts in his sleep, and Iruka immediately fixes his hold. Comfortable once more, Boruto settles.
Naruto still hasn't asked his question.
“Naruto?” Iruka prompts.
“Ah, actually, it's nothing-”
“Really! I was just, you know… talking.”
Naruto winces, and Iruka looks at him flatly. “I've known you for more than half your life. You weren't just talking. You want to ask me something.” Softening his voice, he adds, “I’m not always the best listener, but I’m listening now. Okay?”
Boruto squirms, and as Iruka looks down yet again to get him resettled once more, Naruto blurts, “Don't you want to have a child of your own?”
Iruka’s heart freezes.
He looks up just in time for Naruto to look away.
“What?” Iruka asks.
“It’s just… You attended the wedding as my father and you look after Boruto when Hinata and I can't, but I’m not really your son, right?”
He looks at Iruka meaningfully, and despite the sinking feeling in Iruka's gut, Iruka nods.
It was bound to happen eventually. He’s always been more fond of Naruto than he was supposed to be. Even the Third, who encouraged him to think more kindly of Naruto, warned him about getting too attached.
Iruka has never been very good at detaching, but he can do it if that's what Naruto wants.
“Right. Of course.” It’s embarrassing that he put the burden of bringing this up on Naruto. “Sorry, Naruto. You must want to live your own life.”
Naruto frowns. “Huh?"
“You're an adult now- and a father yourself! You don't need your old teacher hanging around.” Iruka summons up a smile. “I'm really glad I got to see you grow up. Part of life is letting go, though, right? It's past time for me to let you leave the nest like you want-”
“That's not it!”
Boruto startles at Naruto’s shout, wailing before even he seems to know what he's doing, and Naruto recoils, falling back until he can pull his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs and hiding his face against his thighs, shoulders hunched up by his ears.
Confused, Iruka concentrates on soothing Boruto’s unhappy wailing rather than try to talk to Naruto while Boruto complains.
It isn't difficult. Like his father, Boruto just needs attention. A minute or two of crooning to him, bouncing him gently, and Boruto is calm enough to start drifting off again, worn out by his outburst.
When Iruka finally looks back at Naruto, Naruto is still curled up miserably.
Experience has taught Iruka not to get too close when a ninja of Naruto’s caliber is holding himself like this, so he calls Naruto’s name instead of touching him like Iruka wants to do. “Hey.”
“Don't you want a son with your name?” Naruto asks, voice muffled. “You and Kakashi-sensei could adopt a real son, not some kid who got forced on you and just hasn't let go.”
Iruka shakes his head.
“That’s what you wanted to ask me about?”
Naruto's eyes slide away- a yes as clear as it was when he was ten and making trouble at the Academy.
Iruka kicks his shin. He doesn't do it hard enough to hurt; it's little more than a nudge. But it does what he meant it to- Naruto looks up sharply.
“Don't try to put thoughts in my head,” Iruka scolds. “You're bad at it.”
“Unless you're going to tell me you don't want me as your father, stop talking.” Naruto stops trying to argue, and Iruka nods to himself. “Why are you suddenly worried about me wanting another child?”
Naruto shrugs. "You're better at being a father than I am, Sensei. It takes me ages to help Boruto when he's upset, but you do it really easily. Why wouldn't you rather do all this stuff for your own kid?”
“I like children, Naruto. It doesn't matter whether they're related to me or not. If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't have chosen to be a teacher. And looking after children is a skill that takes time to develop, and you can't use kage bunshin to get better, faster. Boruto isn't even a year old. Give yourself time to learn like everybody else.”
Naruto nods miserably.
“Do you remember how often you used to get in trouble? It took me a long time to figure out what you needed.” Iruka nudges Naruto’s leg a little harder and raises his eyebrows. “You could say that children need you to see underneath the underneath, I suppose.”
In his mind, Iruka sees Kakashi’s smug grin.
Naruto doesn't look reassured. “But what if I can't? I'm not smart, Sensei. All I'm good at is hitting people.”
“You're good at more than that.” Giving in, Iruka reaches across the table and lays his hand on Naruto’s wrist. “Children are scary, aren't they? Nobody prepares you for how much they need you to take good care of them.”
Naruto nods. “Hinata and I should have waited longer, shouldn't we?”
“Because you aren't ready?”
Naruto nods again.
“I don't know what would have happened if you'd waited, but Boruto is here now. Right?”
Sensing Naruto’s growing unease, Iruka gets to his feet and crosses the table, Boruto cradled in one arm.
Sitting down beside Naruto, Iruka looks over at him until Naruto meets his eyes.
“You were always a good kid, and you grew into a good man.” Petting Naruto’s head, Iruka says, “I know you're scared, but Boruto is going to grow up in a house with all the love you were supposed to have. He's going to be happy because his father is going to take good care of him.”
“But what if I can't?" Naruto asks. "What if something in me got broken or- or-”
Naruto’s voice cracks, and Iruka stops petting him, letting his hand rest on the crown of Naruto’s head instead. “There isn't anything broken in you.”
“It feels like there is.”
The bottom drops out of Iruka’s stomach. This is too close for comfort to things Kakashi has let slip over the years.
“You aren't alone anymore, Naruto. Hinata is with you. Sakura and all your friends in the village are, too. And don't forget about Kakashi and me. You and Boruto are going to be looked after.”
They don't normally do things like this, but Iruka pulls Naruto’s head down and kisses the top of his head.
As he does, an old memory resurfaces. It's little more than a sense of being hurt but feeling safe from the pain, his father’s voice in one ear and his mother’s in the other, someone's fingers combing through his hair.
His parents would know how to reassure Naruto. His mother had always been encouraging; he'd never had to worry because she would make things better. Or, on the rare occasion she couldn't, his father would. Iruka has always wanted to be more like his father. His father hadn't been as prone to coddling him as Iruka's mother had been, but he'd always been behind Iruka- as stern as he could be, he'd been a constant source of comfort, a trait Iruka has never been able to cultivate in himself despite years of trying. He's too impulsive to ground anyone else.
Well, almost anyone else, Iruka revises, remembering the years he's spent arguing Kakashi's nightmare away.
Naruto has begun to shake, and Iruka isn't his parents.
Somehow, even with the love of their village and the world at large, Naruto still looks to him for comfort. That has to mean something.
“When you asked me to attend your wedding as your father, it made me really happy,” Iruka says quietly.
Naruto shrugs. “You're always happy.”
“No, I'm not.” Iruka bumps Naruto with his head a little. “I was really happy at that moment, though. Do you know why?”
Naruto mumbles something Iruka strongly suspects is “Because you're weird”.
Ruffling Naruto’s hair, Iruka says, “Don't be rude when I’m being nice!”
He keeps a firm hold on Naruto.
Usually Iruka yells at him when Naruto is being stubborn, but he doesn't want to yell when Naruto is curled in on himself like this.
“I’m going to pretend I didn't hear what you just said," Iruka tells Naruto, "but I'm doing that so I can tell you that it's because that time, you acknowledged me. It's a nice circle, isn't it?”
Naruto sniffles, and Iruka kisses the top of his head again.
“You're going to be a good father; I’ll make sure of it. So let me do the worrying. I'm better at it than you are.”
Naruto’s voice is little more than a rasp as he says, “Thank you.”
Iruka still isn't like his father and never will be, but as Naruto turns and pulls him into a crushing hug, Iruka doesn't think that has to be a bad thing.
When Kakashi comes home and finds Naruto asleep on the couch, Boruto equally quiet in Iruka’s arms as Iruka sets the table, he chuckles. “Naruto still can't stay away, I see.”
“Don't be mean. He's good company,” Iruka tells him. He turns his head for a kiss when Kakashi comes over, though.
“Hey, Kakashi?” he asks quietly.
“You're keeping an eye on Naruto, right?”
“Not really. He's an adult now and the world isn't actively in danger. Why?”
“I'm worried about him.”
Kakashi turns to look at him. “Is something wrong?”
“You know something you aren't telling me,” Kakashi accuses, keeping his voice low to prevent an argument. "What's going on, Iruka?”
“The war is over, but he isn't happy. I don't think he knows how to live in this world.” The dread must show on Kakashi's face because Iruka sighs. “It doesn't have to be a heart to heart. Just… Can you make sure he doesn't think he has to do this all on his own?”
Humming to himself, Kakashi nods. “I'll see where his head’s at.” Iruka beams, and Kakashi crowds him against the counter. “Since I'm home early and the kids are asleep-”
“Not happening,” Iruka says brightly. He kisses Kakashi’s cheek through the mask. “But ask again after Naruto heads home. Maybe I'll have a different answer.”
Kakashi looks over at Naruto, who’s sleeping soundly on the couch and not showing any signs of getting up any time soon, and sighs.
Naruto is sitting on the ground under the tree with the swing he always used to hide by when Iruka finds him.
“You should be in bed,” Iruka tells him, hands on his hips. “It's cold, and Hinata is worried. I know you know how tired she is and how much Boruto fusses when you aren't around.”
Naruto doesn't even pretend he's going to leave, so Iruka walks over and sits down next to him.
It isn't so cold that being outside is dangerous, but it's still cold enough that Naruto shouldn't be sitting out here in just his pajamas.
He's wearing shoes, at least.
Iruka slips the blanket off his own shoulders and wraps it around Naruto.
“No arguing,” Iruka says over him. “It's cold, Naruto. You'll get sick.”
“So will you.”
“You've been out here for longer than I have."
Naruto lets out a long, miserable breath, eyes drifting from Iruka’s face to the ground.
Iruka reaches over slowly and lays his hand on Naruto’s shoulder. He doesn't say anything; he can guess what Naruto is thinking and knows he has to be careful.
There are tells that give away the kids who haven't been held enough and are hoping the next person who sees them will finally give them what they can't ask for.
Naruto has all of them.
It's bad to have favorites, but how was Iruka ever going to love another student as much as he loves Naruto? It would kill him.
“I heard they're talking about lining up the Sixth’s successor,” Iruka says slowly.
Naruto nods. “They want the next hokage to know in advance and be ready so we don't have to go looking and argue with them like we had to with the old lady.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
Naruto nods again.
“I know they mentioned your name in the first meeting. Just because they didn't pick you immediately doesn't mean they won't-”
Barely above a whisper, Naruto says, “I'm glad.”
Iruka freezes. From the air in his lungs to the thoughts in his head, everything freezes.
Naruto curls in on himself like he had that evening with Boruto. His voice is even softer when he says, “I’m glad they didn't pick me.”
Taking his hand off Naruto’s shoulder, Iruka lays it on his forearm instead. “But what about your dream?”
“It's not- I don't want it.” Naruto curls in on himself, knees drawing up to his chest. “Sometimes, I can't sleep for days. I can't stop remembering everything. All the people who died because of me, everyone who wouldn't let me save them, everyone who-” He cuts himself off. “They're always in my head, Sensei. Usually, I can live with them, you know? But sometimes…”
His voice breaks, and he shakes his head sharply, face pressed to his knees. “I kept telling everybody it was my dream, but now that I’m here, I don't want it. I don't want to choose who dies. I don't want anybody else to get hurt. I don't even- Sometimes, I don't- I’m not-”
Naruto has never been a quiet person. The change is unsettling.
“Please don't tell anyone,” Naruto begs. He lifts his face, and the tears pouring down his cheeks catch the light. “I promise I won't ask for anything else. I won't even ask you not to hate me. Just don't tell the others. I'll do it if they pick me, okay? Please, Sensei. Please don't tell anyone.”
Iruka gives up trying to be careful and hauls Naruto into a hug.
“Idiot,” he scolds, squeezing Naruto hard. “Of course you aren't going to ask me not to hate you. That goes without saying!”
“You don't have to-”
Naruto squirms, so Iruka holds on tighter. His own eyes are damp.
“Why didn't you tell me before that you aren't sleeping? Is that why Sakura said she's been finding you in strange places in the morning? You just come out into the village and wander around on your own?”
Naruto shrugs, finally accepting that Iruka isn't letting go, and Iruka knocks their heads together harder than he means to.
This isn't at all what he'd thought Naruto was struggling with, but he should have.
He should have anticipated this.
“Dreams can change, Naruto.”
“But I said I'd never go back on my word!”
“Being hokage was never really what you wanted, though, was it?” Iruka asks. “You wanted to be accepted by the village. Becoming hokage was a means to that end.
“You'll still help us look after each other, but you saved the world. You're allowed to rest now. You're allowed to be an adult who outgrew the dreams he had as a child. Changing because you've grown up isn't the same as going back on your word.”
Iruka shakes his head. “I don't want you to suffer.” He takes a long, deep breath in. “You outgrew your Academy teacher years ago, so I'm saying this just as someone you mean a lot to- being hokage isn't what you're meant to be. I want you to sleep late and play tricks when you want to. I want you to be surrounded by people who love you and make you laugh. And more than anything, I want you to be happy.”
There are tears pouring down his face; Naruto must feel them.
“Forgive me, Naruto,” Iruka says, his voice unsteady. “I really don't want you to become hokage.”
Naruto is bigger than Iruka, but when a wet sob tears through him and he turns his face to hide it in Iruka’s chest, he may as well be twelve again, tiny and lonely and terrified of never being anything else.
“Come here,” Iruka tells him. “Come here, so I can hug you properly.”
Naruto only manages to shift a little, but it's enough for Iruka to get the right angle for a hug.
“We have an extra bed,” Iruka tells his shoulder. “A couch, too. If you can't sleep at your home, you're always welcome to them. Hinata can come if she wants. Boruto, too.”
“What about Kakashi-sensei?”
“What if I have bad dreams?”
“Then I'll chase them away.”
It's a promise meant to soothe a child, not someone Naruto’s age, but as Iruka thinks back, he can't imagine anyone spending time soothing Naruto when he was that young.
“I don't think that's possible, Iruka-sensei,” Naruto argues weakly.
“Don't count me out so quickly! Besides, if I can’t chase the dreams away, I can still hold you just like this until you can sleep again.”
“I'm a grown up now, though…”
“And? You think grown ups don't want to be held?”
“Well, you're wrong. I like being held. So does Kakashi. I bet Hinata does, too. Sakura-chan as well."
Voice small, Naruto asks, “You really aren't ashamed of me?”
“I'm not!” Iruka promises him, emphatic. “We’ll sort everything out. I won't let you live a life you don't want, okay? Leave it to Kakashi and me.”
“You can't promise that.”
“Hey, hey. Don't underestimate me. I stood between you and Mizuki once. I'll stand between you and the village if I have to. The whole world, too.”
Still too quiet, Naruto asks, “Why?”
“Because you're important to me. And what kind of father lets his son be so unhappy he cries alone outside? At least cry next to me, okay?”
Naruto coughs a laugh and finally leans his entire weight on Iruka.
I’m sorry, Naruto, Iruka thinks. I keep finding you too late. I'm going to work hard so your future is better. I promise.
Kakashi sighs when he finds them. He's been awake for an hour, disturbed first by Hinata visiting the house and Iruka’s subsequent disappearance from their bed, then by Iruka’s brief return, his barely whispered “I’ll be back in a bit”, and a kiss on the forehead.
The sun still hasn’t cleared the horizon and it's a rare slow day for Kakashi, which is normally a good excuse to sleep in, but the bed was cold without Iruka.
That was mostly because Iruka himself wasn't there, but as Kakashi looks over Iruka and Naruto, he spots one of their blankets wrapped around Naruto’s shoulders.
“He's fast asleep, huh?” Kakashi asks.
Naruto looks up at him helplessly. “He got really worked up.”
“Well, he wouldn't be Iruka if he didn't,” Kakashi points out. His back twinges, so he stretches, sighing in relief as his spine pops and the pressure eases. “He walked Hinata and Boruto home, but I’m sure Hinata is still worried.”
He doesn't tell Naruto to talk to her. If Naruto is ready, he will. Until then, Hinata will wait for him.
Propped up against the tree, Iruka mumbles something in his sleep. It's impossible to understand, but that only adds to its cuteness.
“Time to get going, I think,” Kakashi says, shaking his head.
Expression falling, Naruto looks away.
Kakashi walks over and picks Iruka up gently, arranging him comfortably for the walk home.
Still asleep, Iruka makes a noise of protest but snuggles closer.
It's been too long since they had time just to be together.
“You're coming, too, aren't you?” Kakashi asks, returning his attention to Naruto.
Kakashi sighs. “Let me rephrase that. Naruto-kun? Get up. You're going home with us. There's a very nice mattress for you to sleep on and a very worried teacher for you to reassure.”
Without speaking, Naruto gets to his feet.
“Oh, the blanket-”
He starts to take it off, but Kakashi shakes his head sharply.
“You can give it back later,” Kakashi says. “It's cold out.”
From his spot at the table, Naruto asks, “Hey, Iruka-sensei?”
Iruka looks up from his papers, forehead pinched. “What is it?”
Now that Naruto is here, the idea of actually asking Iruka is unbearable. “Ah, never mind.”
“Come on. You got my attention for a reason. Do you want something else to eat? The kitchen is a little sparse since Kakashi hasn't been home much, but I'm sure I could find something.”
“No, it's not that.”
“Then what? It's not like you to be shy.” He sets his papers aside, facing Naruto fully. “Whatever it is, I'm listening. Okay?”
He smiles as he says it.
He smiles when he says he's my father, too.
“You're the only person who's ever apologized for ignoring me,” Naruto blurts. Iruka blinks at him, forehead wrinkling in confusion, and in the hopes of avoiding the awkward conversation he knows is going to follow, Naruto quickly adds, “It's not a big deal or anything. I was just wondering why you're so weird, you know? Apologizing to me like that. That's such a strange thing to do-”
Naruto closes his mouth as Iruka gets to his feet and marches around the table, expression hard.
“I really didn't mean anything! I was just playing, you know? Another prank!” Naruto forces a laugh. “See? It's funny!”
Iruka ignores him, and Naruto closes his eyes, bracing himself for a scolding.
The scolding doesn't come.
Instead, Iruka puts his arms around Naruto. He squeezes too hard, trapping Naruto in a crushing hug that's growing familiar. Naruto’s lungs object to the pressure, but his heart beats more steadily as he returns the hug.
“How did you grow up so well?” Iruka asks. His breath is warm on the top of Naruto’s head. “After everything you've survived, how did you become such a good man?”
Naruto tries to wriggle away. “That's not-”
Iruka just squeezes him even harder, keeping him trapped. “I don't know why the others haven't apologized.” He strokes Naruto’s back with one hand. “All I can tell you is how I feel.”
“You don't have to…”
“That's true. So be sure to pay attention.”
He doesn't say anything for a long moment, so Naruto says, “Okay.”
“You and I are really similar. I told you before, right? We both had no one waiting for us at home. I should have seen how much you were hurting. You were misbehaving for the same reason I used to. Even when you were being a pain, I knew you didn't really have bad intentions. You never wanted to hurt anyone.”
“What about Sasuke?” Naruto asks.
Iruka huffs a laugh. “Maybe Sasuke. But all you really wanted was for someone to see your worth, and being acknowledged by the popular kid wasn't a bad idea.”
“So that's why you apologized? Because we’re similar?”
“No.” Iruka shakes his head. “You got hurt because of me. You matter to me, and I’m sad that I didn't take good care of you. That's why I apologized.
“You were important before you became a ninja, and you're important now. I'm sorry I didn't make you feel that way every day like you deserved. I'm really, really sorry, Naruto.”
Something warm and wet hits the top of Naruto's head. It takes him a moment to realize Iruka is crying.
He does that a lot.
“You don't have to be that sorry,” Naruto mumbles. “It's not like I want you to be unhappy or anything.”
“This isn't for me, you idiot,” Iruka scolds.
“Well, I don't want it.”
It's a lie inside a truth. Naruto doesn't have any desire to see Iruka cry or for Iruka to shed literal tears, but it's kind of nice that Iruka cares enough to cry over him.
“Well, too bad,” Iruka says thickly. “This is what beloved people have to deal with. It's your fault for being so lovable.”
Heart in his throat, Naruto doesn't keep arguing.
They stay in their uneven hug for so long that Naruto starts to drift off. Iruka doesn't let go even though bending over must be uncomfortable, and Naruto doesn't want him to let go.
Now that he's an adult, he's more aware of what other people think of Iruka. They like him, but most other ninjas think he should be more reserved. Even if he works with kids- especially because he works with kids- he should be more professional.
If Iruka were more like those people, though, he wouldn't hug Naruto like this.
He wouldn't have cried and apologized with Mizuki's shuriken still buried in his back.
He wouldn't have gone looking for Naruto when Jiraiya died and swore that Naruto hadn't been a disappointment.
He wouldn't have ordered Naruto to come back alive.
He wouldn't have loved Naruto when other people wouldn't even say his name.
Iruka has other students, and he apologizes to them, too.
Only Naruto gets to be hugged like this, though. Other people can call Iruka their teacher, but none of them can call him their father.
Naruto opens the door to the hokage’s residence, fully expecting to find Iruka working at the table like usual. Being vice principal takes up a lot of his time and stresses him out, so Naruto brought him a little treat.
Instead of finding Iruka working, Naruto spots him stretched out on the couch, asleep on top of Kakashi.
Naruto freezes. Kakashi looks like he might actually be sleeping, too.
“You should stick around,” Kakashi drawls, slowly opening one eye. “He'll be out for another ten minutes or so, but he’ll be mad if you leave without saying hello.”
Nodding, Naruto finishes coming into the room.
Kakashi looks him over critically. “You’re looking better. Iruka said you two have been talking.”
“A bit, yeah.”
“Adjusting to village life is hard. It's going to take time for your mind to recognize the fighting is over. Iruka is a good person to lean on in the meantime."
“He is. I'm grateful.” Naruto settles into the chair by the couch Iruka likes the most.
“If you aren't ready to be hokage yet, I can survive it for a while longer.” Kakashi strokes Iruka’s back, and Iruka sighs sleepily. “My retirement can wait.”
Kakashi looks at him curiously.
Naruto lets out a long breath. “I can't be hokage, Kakashi-sensei.”
“I'm not sure I can even- I love being a ninja. But after everything with Sasuke and Madara and Kaguya… I don't want to hurt anyone else.”
He watches Kakashi, certain he's doing the right thing but holding his breath anyway.
Kakashi smiles again, even wider this time. With the mask on, which never comes off when Naruto is around even though Naruto is his son, it's hard to tell, but that seems right. “That's good.”
“Good? You're not mad?”
“Well, it would have been more convenient for me if you were willing to keep working hard to become my successor.” Smile dropping, Kakashi gives him an even look. “But you're right to say no. You've won enough impossible battles. If anyone should get to retire young, it's you.”
Naruto breathes out slowly. “Is that really okay?”
Iruka shifts in his sleep, and Kakashi looks down at him, open eye soft.
When he looks back to Naruto, his expression doesn't change. “You have a lot of leeway, Naruto. If you want to retire now, you can. If you want to go live on Mount Myoboku, I won't say you can't. Don't stay there forever, though. We’d miss you if you became a toad. Although,” he says, turning playful, “it would be interesting to see Iruka try to figure out how to hug a toad, so maybe there's something to it.”
“Kakashi-sensei!” Naruto chides.
“I know, I know.” Kakashi looks back down at Iruka. “People often wonder what I’m doing with Iruka. I can't restore my clan by having a child with him. He's a respectable ninja but not a powerful one. He's handsome but not so striking it warrants attention from the hokage. He's loud and pushy, and he makes me do a lot of the cooking.”
Naruto frowns. “What are you saying?”
“I've found that the things I really want in life aren't things other people think I'd want. They aren't even things I thought I'd want. But I do want them.
“Being with Iruka makes me happy. Even though he can be a pain and he argues with me constantly, I’m lucky he sticks around.”
“Like Hinata sticks around for me?”
Kakashi nods. “You two have been talking, too, haven't you?”
“Yeah, it's- I’ve never had something I didn't want to talk about before, but she's been really patient with me.” Unable to stop himself, Naruto fidgets with the edge of his sleeve. “Iruka-sensei letting us leave Boruto with him while we go on dates together and stuff has been really helpful.”
“He does love that kid- kind of like he loves Boruto’s father. You should stick around sometime after you drop Boruto off and watch them together. Iruka actually stops working to play with him.”
Putting on an air of feigned curiosity, Naruto asks, “Oh, does he not do that with you?”
Kakashi rolls his eye. “He doesn't because I don't pester him.”
Naruto can tell Kakashi is smiling, and the way Kakashi smooths a stray lock of hair off Iruka’s face is more tender than Naruto would have guessed he could be.
It makes Naruto’s throat tight.
“I'm glad you two have each other.”
Kakashi smiles. “Me, too.”
When Iruka wakes up, he notices Kakashi first. Sitting up slowly, he stretches, raising his arms above his head.
He isn't surprised that Kakashi takes advantage of the moment to put his hands under Iruka’s shirt- Kakashi’s hands run cold, and he's always putting them on Iruka to warm them up- but Iruka can't help the reflexive squirm or the flush that follows Kakashi’s soft laugh.
What does surprise him is the heartfelt, “Ew!” from the chair by the couch.
Kakashi sighs as Iruka yelps and almost falls over. He keeps Iruka upright as Naruto gets to his feet and wanders over.
“I thought you weren't coming by today!” Iruka says hastily. “I would have had Kakashi make something!”
“You do know I'm busy being hokage, right?”
“So busy you can't cook for our son?”
Kakashi sighs. “You see, Naruto? He makes me do all the cooking.”
Naruto shakes his head. “I just wanted to bring you a snack since I thought you'd be working.”
He nods shyly at a box on the chair.
“Iruka, if you cry about Naruto bringing you dango-”
“I'm not crying,” Iruka hisses. He isn't, at least not yet. “That was thoughtful, Naruto. Thank you!”
Grinning, Naruto comes over when Iruka waves at him and ducks his head for a hug without having to be asked.
He feels more solid than he has since the war ended, and Iruka doesn't want to let go.
“Iruka,” Kakashi interrupts, voice knowing. “Naruto has a family waiting to eat with him. Not that we don't want you to stay, Naruto, but I’m sure Hinata would like to spend time with you after spending the day with the main family.”
“Of course she would!” Iruka lets go and gives Naruto a gentle push. “Thank you again, Naruto. Say hi to Hinata and Boruto for us.”
Naruto agrees, and with a quick exchange of goodbyes with Kakashi, he makes his escape.
“He already told you he doesn't want to be hokage, didn’t he?” Kakashi asks.
Iruka nods. “He thought I'd hate him.”
“He really wasn't meant to be a ninja.”
“He wasn't meant to be a soldier either.”
Iruka shakes his head. “I’m not looking for a fight. It's just hard to look at him and not see all the other children we left behind. How many of them got to retire and make families?”
Kakashi takes Iruka’s hands in his. “You could argue that one of them did.” He threads their fingers together. “Have faith in Naruto. If I can find a life that makes me happy, so can he.”
“That's all I want for him,” Iruka says, squeezing Kakashi’s hands.
That isn't quite true, though. Naruto already found what makes him happy. It's delicate, though, and completely different from the life he's had, and Naruto knows that.
What Iruka wants is to give Naruto a life where he's free to be happy without the threat of war taking it from him again, but he isn't strong enough to give that to him. All Iruka can do is support Kakashi and hope that's enough.
As they get up, Kakashi’s hands once more on Iruka’s hips, he can't shake the feeling that it won't be.
Naruto squints at Iruka.
“What is it?” Iruka asks, not pausing as he reaches up to put the dry plates away.
“Am I taller than you?”
About to pick up the cups, Iruka abandons them and turns around. He gives Naruto a long, assessing look. “I’m not sure.”
He takes off without another word, catching Naruto by the sleeve and towing him along.
“Sensei, what are you doing?”
“Finding a mirror,” Iruka tells him.
“Can't we just say how tall we are?”
“We could, but numbers lie.”
Naruto sighs. “That's not what you said when I got math homework wrong.”
Iruka chuckles, and as they line up together in front of the bathroom mirror, Iruka bumps their arms together.
Naruto looks into the mirror to compare their heights, taking a deep breath in to reach his tallest, but as he does, he’s struck by how little they look like father and son.
It isn't even that their faces and their hair don't match. Sometimes parents and their kids don't look much alike, like with Sakura and her mom and dad.
What strikes Naruto is something even more obvious.
Iruka isn't old enough to be his father.
Naruto already knew that in the back of his mind, but Iruka has felt like his father for so long, Naruto can't remember thinking about Iruka any other way. Even calling him Sensei is more of a habit than a reflection of how Naruto feels.
Looking at the two of them standing side by side like this, though, Naruto can't escape how young Iruka is.
Iruka was the age Naruto is now when he was Naruto’s teacher. He was even younger when he first grabbed Naruto by the back of his collar and made him stay after school to clean up a mess he'd made. Iruka was barely an adult when he decided Naruto was worthy of his time.
No one else ate with Naruto, but Iruka bought him three bowls of ramen at a time.
None of the other adults cried because they hurt him.
None of them ever saw him as more than that child. But Iruka did. Iruka gave Naruto his first headband and congratulated him.
If Naruto had never saved the village, none of them would have wanted to attend his wedding, let alone attend as his father, but Iruka would have. Naruto knows that like he knows that the things he drops will fall.
Iruka knew his parents. Naruto remembers being ten; if his mom and dad had been alive then, he would remember them now.
Suddenly, Mizuki’s words sink in.
Kurama killed Iruka’s parents.
Iruka did all that even though as Kurama’s jinchuuriki, Naruto was home to the creature that made Iruka an orphan.
“Well,” Iruka says, still facing the mirror. “I guess you did get taller.” He looks over at Naruto. “I feel like I was just catching you trying to skip class, but you really grew up when I wasn't looking. Must have been all that ramen, huh?”
Naruto nods quickly, hoping to escape before it's too late, but his eyes are already prickling before he shuts them.
“Naruto?” Iruka asks. “Is something wrong?”
“I'm fine,” Naruto lies as he rubs at the tears. “Just got something in my eyes.”
Iruka starts doing something, but Naruto doesn't know what, too busy trying to make the tears stop, until Iruka tells him to take his hands away and replaces them with a warm, damp cloth.
He lets Naruto hold it by himself but insists on making Naruto sit on the edge of the bathtub.
Is this what a father would do?
“You must miss him.”
Naruto’s heart stops. “What?”
“Your father.” Iruka clears his throat. “I know you two fought on the front lines together against Madara. Losing a parent isn't easy, right?”
Naruto’s gut rolls with guilt.
“I guess I miss him, but the Fourth… He's basically a stranger, you know? I don't know what he likes to eat or his favorite color.” Rubbing at his eyes through the cloth, Naruto tries to wipe away the tears that stream past the bottom edge. “Sorry, Sensei. I don't know what got in my eyes.”
Iruka slowly sits down beside him. “I see.”
“Just give me a minute and I'll fix it. You don't have to wait or anything.”
Iruka doesn't move. “You know,” he says, “if I were you, I'd be upset that the father I’d been imagining for years was only with me for a little while, and we couldn't just get to know each other because we had to fight a war. Not knowing his favorite foods and his favorite color is what hurts, isn't it?”
“I'm sure the Fourth told you he's proud of you.” Iruka lets out a long breath. “But we want to hear that we’re loved throughout our lives, right? I'm proud of you, too. I'm really, really proud."
A sound bubbles up from Naruto’s chest, dragging up a tidal wave of memories and feelings he doesn't want to name, and when he tips forward to try to keep it all in, a warm, broad hand comes to rest on his back.
A sob forces its way out, and Iruka rubs Naruto’s back. He doesn't say anything, just rubs Naruto’s back as Naruto leans into him.
Naruto is still sitting like that when he makes himself say, “I know you're too young to be my dad.”
Iruka lets go with one hand, but he's only moving so he can stroke Naruto’s hair.
“It's kind of weird, isn't it?” Naruto chokes on a laugh, and Iruka squeezes him. “I don't really think about it, to be honest. What I want for you doesn't change. Your place in my life doesn't change. So long as you remember I'm older than you are, the rest will fall into place, right?”
He’s smiling. Naruto can't see his face, but he can hear it in Iruka’s voice.
Before Iruka, did anybody smile at him?
In hindsight, Hinata tried- when he gets home, he should remind her of how shy she used to be, just because it will make her embarrassed now, which is always fun- but she was only a kid, too.
“Thank you,” Naruto whispers. “I’m okay now, though.”
He says that, but as they get up and Naruto dries his face, he feels worse than he had a moment ago.
Iruka puts an arm around his shoulders. “Come on. Suzume-sensei recommended a TV drama, and I promised her I'd take a look. You can suffer with me.”
By the time Kakashi comes home, Iruka is sitting at one end of the couch and Naruto is lying down with one foot in Iruka’s lap and the other in the air, fending off the arm Iruka is waving threateningly at him.
Naruto is crying again, but it's because Iruka ran out of real threats and is now just threatening him nonsensically as he tries and fails to reclaim his bowl of ice cream. The face he's making isn’t quite identical to the one he used to make when Naruto got in trouble in the Academy; this one is softer, especially now that he's given up on pretending he isn't laughing, too.
Even if Iruka is too young to be Naruto’s dad, he still is.
“I'm home,” Kakashi says from the doorway. “I hope that isn't the special ice cream I bought Iruka as a treat, Naruto.”
It is, and they all know it.
“Welcome home,” Iruka calls, catching Naruto’s ankle before looking over at him. “Done for the day or just taking a break?”
“Done for the day.” Kakashi comes over and sits on the arm of the couch next to Iruka. He looks happy as he leans in and kisses Iruka’s temple. “You two look like you've been having fun.”
Iruka leans into him, humming happily as he does. One hand stays on Naruto’s ankle, though; his palm is warm, and when he looks over at Naruto, he's smiling so hard, it must hurt.
Definitely come back alive!
Naruto shoves a giant scoop of ice cream into his mouth, and as Iruka squawks, indignation rising, Naruto smiles back and means it.
Hinata and Boruto went out with Temari and Shikadai. They won't be home for at least another hour and Naruto already cleaned the house, so he has plenty of time to lie here and annoy Iruka.
And when he does go home, he has a cool new technique to show off to Hinata, one that will keep bugs out but let the wind through. It’s taken him a month to perfect and required a lot of help from Shino and Temari, but now that it's ready, Hinata can sit in the open window with Boruto in the summer without getting bitten or overheating.
Naruto did come back alive. His father told him to, and even if that man is threatening to murder him with a spoon right now, Naruto won't disappoint him.
He won't disappoint Boruto either.